FORT BLISS, Texas--Two players from the Dallas Cowboys team visited Team Bliss, signing autographs and meeting fans at the Warrior Transition Battalion and the Post Exchange, and trying out weapons at the Engagement Skills Trainer 2000.

Twenty-seven-year-old nose tackle Jay Ratliff and 24-year-old defensive end Stephen Bowen spent four hours talking to Soldiers, their family members and other fans here, and were forced to skip lunch as hundreds showed at the PX.

"It's exciting because it's not every day that you get to see your favorite sports [professionals] come around," said Sgt. Miguel Briones, a Cowboys fan assigned to the Rest and Resilience Center who had Ratliff autograph a ball. "They're my idols, pretty much."

Through a mutual friend of Bowen's, Master Sgt. Mark Mancini, a fan from the 93rd Military Police Battalion, facilitated the players' visit.

"I said, 'What do you think about coming to Fort Bliss''" Mancini said about a conversation with Bowen. "He said, 'I thought you'd never ask.'"

Along with Ratliff, Mancini said both players jumped at the chance to meet Soldiers and play a multi-million-dollar video game in the form of the EST 2000. The players bypassed the M-16s and instead handled the MK-19 grenade machine gun and the M-2 .50-caliber machine gun.

"I thought that was frickin' awesome because I've been talking to Bo about it and he said Jay Ratliff's a big-time hunter also," he said. "It was just a matter of just seeing them get up there and understand what our Soldiers do ..."

Still, both players said their favorite part of the visit was hanging out with the Soldiers and other fans.

"It's a pleasure to be here and be with those who serve our country - just to be able to hang out with them and talk to them," Bowen said. "It was great."

"Everybody's so welcoming," said Ratliff, also known as J Rat. "They showed us a lot of love, and we definitely felt comfortable. This is something that I think I want to get into - going around meeting troops, Soldiers and wounded Soldiers as well. I've been thinking about that the whole time I was signing autographs."

Bowen said he was surprised at how many fans were so far west - even the kids who were excited to see them.

"I liked hanging with the little kids - the kids coming up to me and giving me high fives and stuff like that."

Unfortunately, Bo and J Rat had to leave before some fans could meet them, which Mancini said was unavoidable as many wounded warriors at the WTB were waiting for them too - one of the main reasons he said he wanted the players to visit the post.

"The ultimate goal, though, was to come over here and to spend time with them - just to give them a reality check of what really goes on," he said. "A lot of people become numb to it, so it's a good thing for them ..."
Mancini said that hopefully the two will visit again, and they'll have more time with the fans and more time with the WTB Soldiers.

"It was awesome," he said. "I thought it was really great. Unfortunately, when you're bringing in names like that and the Dallas Cowboys, you're not going to have a lot of time."